Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

1998: Mind Changer (White, James)

Psychological emergency under the new administration (4/5)

Mind Changer is the eleventh of twelve Sector General books and continues to take the focus off of Conway, a character who really ceased to be engaging after the first few books. Mind Changer shifts its limelight to the history of O'Mara, who was once a space construction worker, but after much personal experience with psychology, albeit without proper training, he was taken on as a psychologist. In this novel, we learn more about how O'Hara came to be and how he has affected the station since taking his posts.

Rear cover synopsis:
"It's where human and alien medicine meet: a massive hospital space station on the Galactic Rim, with 384 levels and a multispecies staff of thousands.
In the course of practicing deep-space medicine, that staff has seen more than its share of challenges--from plagues caused by cafeteria food, to cafeteria food that resembles alien species. But now they face a disquieting new development: the terrifying Chief Psychologist, Dr. O'Mara, has been promoted to head of the hospital.
Worse, he's been given the job on a temporary basis, for just as long as it takes to train his own replacement. After that, he is up for mandatory retirement. Nobody at Sector General can begin to imagine what they'll do without him--assuming they last long enough to find out."

Major O'Mara is notified by Colonel Skempton, the hospital's Monitor Corps administrator, that he will be transferring to a new post and that O'Mara must temporarily fill his shoes before retiring. Prior to his retirement while acting as hospital administrator, O'Mara must select the most qualified person--human or alien--who is both qualified medically and psychologically. His three person team gets his his first attention: human assistant Braithwaite, the Tarlan ex-surgeon Padre Lioren, and the forner warrior-surgeon Cha Thrat. Besides these prospective applicants, O'Mara must interview some other possibilities.

Winding back the clock a bit, O'Mara's personal history with Sector General is reviewed quite thoroughly. He first showed psychological promise back during the construction of the hospital when Major Craythorne took O'Mara under his wing. Once he had some time put in and promotion was imminent, the only logical choice to be inducted into the Monitor Corps, and with that the title of lieutenant. At a time when using mind tapes was a budding science, O'Mara illegally downloaded one tape into himself so as to better understand the psychological problems of a surgeon with the same tape.

From there on, O'Mara always had the tape in his head, with the secret medical knowledge and intimate life experiences of a promising young female Kelgian DBLF doctor. The honesty imparted to him by the mind tape has him viewed as blunt, rude, and nasty but overall loved by the staff for his noble Kelgian-like quality. However, his personal experience in love is blank and find himself unable to emotionally engage other humans, while taking shelter in the psychology of other aliens.

Progressing decades through his trials and errors, secret deeds and deeds, O'Mara witnesses the promising DBDG human medical students Conway and Murchison. Later, when acting as hospital administrator, O'Mara must ride out a telepathic storm brought on by an injured alien. How the problem is solved isn't as important as how soon it can be accomplished before the entire station turns mad by the infectious negative thoughts of the victim. This will be the impetus by which O'Mara selects the next fully qualified hospital administrator.

Rather than a medical emergency or a medical mystery, Mind Changer, as you would expect from the title and the focus on the character O'Mara, deals with psychology. At first, we witness O'Mara adapting to the multi-species alien environment, how we subsumes the Kelgian mind tape, and how he reluctantly falls in love with a DBDG female. Besides O'Mara's own psychological growth, he mentally dissects the administrator applicants and some of the problem patients within the hospital. This exhibits his sympathetic understanding of the needs for the patients and the desire to cure a troubled mind.

The most interesting part of the book in when O'Mara is trying to find himself during a mandatory vacation aboard a starliner cruise. The experiences he has aboard the ship will pave the way for his emotional and professional growth when he returns to Sector General. Thereafter, he takes his annual leave to someplace secret, which, as its revealed in the end, characterizes him even more so and tells volumes about his behavior at Sector General. And though O'Mara is a modest, well-spoken, yet shy man, the tongue-in-cheek sexual innuendos pens around the circumstances O'Mara finds himself in is hilarious:
Hesitating at first but soon getting into the rhythm, she joined O'Mara in blowing hard, sucking, and spitting out. Only once did she stop to look at him and wipe her lips with the back of her hand.
"Yuk," she said with feeling. "That stuff smells and tastes awful! Are you sure I'm blowing and sucking at the right body orifice?"
"Trust me," said O'Mara. (149)
The sexual innuendo passages aren't always that blatant, but I sure had a chuckle. In this scene, the two are giving CPR to an elephantine Tralthan but the unfolding of the dialog above was an unexpected witticism thrown in by White. I don't remember reading such sexual tension or oddly worded sentences in other White books (other than Major Operation), but I like this side of the, otherwise, dryly written books of White.

The non-linear storyline in Mind Changer is the one additional change in this White novel which sets it apart from the other very linear books in the same series. I've only read half of the entire Sector General series, and terrible out of order at that, but aside from Final Diagnosis (Sector General Book #10), this is the best in the series.

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